Without a Care in the World
The footsteps stopped.
She looked behind her. Nothing.
Sophie took a deep breath and walked on.
There they were again! Footsteps! She stopped.
The footsteps took one more step. Then they stopped too.
She looked back again. An empty lane stretched behind her.
She clutched her doll to her, tucked her head down and hurried on. She would ignore the footsteps. She had to.
"Sophie," a friendly voice called to her. "Where are you going?" The voice belonged to Thomas, one of her school mates.
Sophie was headed to an old abandoned mansion on the far side of town. She often went there with her brothers. But today they didn't want to play.
"Maybe it's because you're such a baby," teased Thomas. He looked pointedly at the old doll Sophie was carrying. "If I were your brother, I wouldn't want to play with you either," he joked.
Sophie knew he was only joking. But it still made her feel a bit sad.
Thomas must have noticed her downcast face. He produced a flask of thin green liquid from behind him. "You know, you should drink some of this." He told her kindly. "I'll even let you have some for free." Curious, Sophie inspected the contents of the flask. It seemed to have magical properties. She wondered what it did. "It'll make you all grown up," Thomas said, reading her thoughts.
Sophie's eyes narrowed. She critically appraised the contents of the flask. There was definitely something out of the ordinary about this green liquid. And Thomas did seem more grown up lately. He was at least 30cm taller than when she'd last seen him. She decided he was probably telling the truth.
She took a step back and smiled a contented smile.
"You know, Thomas," she said, "growing up is an adventure. And I wouldn't want to miss it for anything."
And so saying, she went on her way. Her doll, Nessa, held close to her side.
Sophie held her head high. She was growing up. She had never walked right through town by herself before. And she didn't need some magic potion to help her do it. She hugged Nessa, and drew comfort from the familiar presence. Until the sound of footsteps dispelled her confidence. She glanced frantically over her shoulder. She wasn't surprised to see no-one there. She whimpered quietly, hugged Nessa, and scurried on.
"Sophie," called a voice on her right. Sophie felt her whole body jerk in reaction. Her heart fluttered like a butterfly. Then she saw the speaker. A beautiful Acara stood in the doorway of Miss Tidsley's house. "Where are you bound?" she asked. Sophie didn't recognise the speaker. She stared for a moment. Then realisation dawned. It was Miss Tidsley!
Sophie had never known Miss Tidsley before her illness. People said that she had been very beautiful. But a bout of Reptillioritis had destroyed all her beauty. Apparently, Miss Tidsley was now cured! This glamorous lady was certainly very different to the Miss Tidsley Sophie had always known.
Sophie felt a bit overawed by this new Miss Tidsley. She held Nessa close. But her parents had always drilled the importance of being polite to her elders. So she lowered her eyes and quietly answered Miss Tidsley's question. She explained where she was going. And she told how her brothers didn't want to play with her.
"Maybe it's because you're too ugly," suggested Miss Tidsley with a silvery laugh. "If you drink this, I'm sure it would make you very beautiful."
Sophie looked sceptically at the flask of green liquid Miss Tidsley was holding out. It shimmered and sparkled in the weak winter sunlight. It certainly looked magical. And not even a fool could ignore the wonderful difference it had wrought in Miss Tidsley. Miss Tidsley unstoppered the flask expectantly.
But Sophie just smiled and took a step back.
"No thank you, Miss Tidsley," she said politely. "I'm already beautiful." She turned to leave.
Sophie was very glad she had a mother to tell her that she was beautiful. Otherwise, she mightn't have known. Then Sophie realised ... Miss Tidsley didn't have a mother to tell her she was beautiful. Maybe that's why she wanted to drink the potion! It's because she didn't know she was already beautiful. Poor Miss Tidsley.
On an impulse, Sophie turned back and gave Miss Tidsley a big hug. Someone needed to share this happiness with her.
"I'm glad you're happy, Miss Tidsley," Sophie told her. Then she and Nessa continued on their way.
Miss Tidsley watched the young girl walk off. There was something about that girl – something to do with her youth and optimism – which was extremely endearing.
Miss Tidsley was not the only one thinking these things. Mr Thumber watched the young Ixi approaching. Her curls bobbed as she walked, her ribbons fluttered in the slight breeze. Her doll flopped pathetically.
"Good morning, Sophie," he hailed her as she approached. "You're looking well today, my girl."
"Good morning, Mr Thumber," Sophie responded politely. Nessa waved too. As they approached, Sophie thought something looked different about the older gentleman. His hair was less grey. His forehead was less lined. He seemed ... younger. Sophie looked up curiously at him.
"The young value not their youth as they ought," meditated Mr Thumber aloud. He still talked just like he always had, Sophie thought.
Mr Thumber looked sadly at Sophie. Her youth! Her innocence! Her optimism! Time would change all that. Time would destroy it completely.
"Sophie," he asked tentatively, "how would you like to never grow old?"
Sophie was a little taken aback. Surely that wasn't possible! But when Mr Thumber revealed a flask of bubbling green liquid, a light of understanding dawned in her eyes.
"No thank you, Mr Thumber," she said before he had a chance to explain about the potion. "I'm perfectly happy getting old. Why, today I'm older than I've ever been before! And it's one of the best days of my life so far.
"In my experience, life only gets better as you grow older," she asserted. Then she turned away from Mr Thumber and his bubbling flask of goo and walked on.
Mr Thumber watched her disappear into the distance. He thought he saw a slight shadow slipping along the buildings behind her. But when he looked again, there was no sign of it. He wondered if it was just his failing eyesight playing tricks on him. Probably, he decided. He took another swig of his potion. Maybe it would help his eyesight.
As she reached the less populated side of town, Sophie walked less confidently. She clutched Nessa tightly to her chest. She looked nervously at the dark houses which crowded the alleyway.
Then she heard it! The footsteps! They were back. She whimpered aloud, buried her face in her doll, and rushed onwards. Her little feet trotted briskly over the cobbled street. The footsteps behind her kept pace easily.
At last, Sophie reached her destination. She creaked open the enormous wrought-iron gate and stepped inside. She breathed a sigh of relief. This place was safe. It was like a second home to her. No-one could get at her here.
The young Ixi walked fearlessly up to the wooden doors of the old, abandoned mansion. She was about to enter, when a soft voice behind her spoke.
"Sophie," it said.
Sophie jumped about a mile. What was it?
She turned around to see a well-dressed Krawk. She was sure she had never seen him before. How did he know her name? Sophie clutched Nessa tightly and stared up at the Krawk. Her eyes were wide with fear. She said nothing.
From within his coat, the gentleman produced a flask of green elixir. Sophie eyed it with contempt. "If you drink this potion," he told her in his smoothest voice, "you will have everything could ever wish for."
"No thank you," Sophie said coolly. She shook her curly hair over her shoulders. "I already have everything I could wish for." She held Nessa close, raised her little chin and made to walk away.
"But Sophie," he put out an arm to stop her, "what about your doll? It looks rather old. Wouldn't you rather a new doll?"
If looks could kill, Sophie's would have then.
"Nessa," she proclaimed, "is perfect.
"If anyone tries to give me a new doll, ever, I'll pull its head off and feed it to the Esophagor!" she declared passionately. Sophie had never actually seen the Esophagor. But she had heard that it ate all manner of things. And being fed to a hungry monster would be a fitting punishment. Any doll trying to usurp Nessa's place as her best friend deserved no less.
Turning on her heel, Sophie walked haughtily away – a posture that looked absurd on one so young as her. Mr Krawley, teeth clenched, watched her go. If only he had played his cards better! But then, children were so unpredictable. He couldn't expect to get them all. It would have suited him better to have the whole town in his power. But this obstacle was not insurmountable, he told himself. Keeping to the shadows, he silently moved away from the mansion. He left the town for the time being and disappeared into the woods.